I make no response.
There is no place for blindness among the artists , Elder Lian declares, looking back at Zhang Jing. You’ve lost your apprenticeship. You must gather your things and leave.
Zhang Jing cannot speak. In fact, she goes so pale I’m afraid she’ll pass out. My instinct is to comfort her, but instead I take a bold step toward Elder Lian. She’s not blind yet! I notice some of the other elders are holding up pieces of canvas: samples of Zhang Jing’s past work. Look at those. She still has skill. A blind person couldn’t do that.
They’re imprecise , Elder Lian argues. Flawed. We know you’ve been covering for her. We need perfection in the record, and that requires a perfect set of eyes.
She might get better , I protest. Elder Lian snickers in disbelief. I do not like the sound. It is harsh and ugly.
No one’s sight gets better , Elder Lian says. We all know that. Be grateful her vision is good enough to let her join the miners. At least that way she will be able to contribute. It’s better than begging.
An image of the beggars in the village’s center comes back to me, and I can practically see Zhang Jing among them. It makes me feel sick. But Zhang Jing joining the miners isn’t much better. I think about Li Wei and his father, how dangerous it is to be in the mines with limited vision. I think about how even then, the rations miners receive are smaller than what we get here. It was what drove the servant to steal for his family.
Don’t send her away , I say suddenly, addressing all the elders. There’s an opening among the servants, right? After yesterday’s theft? Let Zhang Jing take it. Please. Her vision is more than adequate to perform those kinds of duties.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’ve never thought much about what the servants do. I haven’t had to. But it has to be a better fate than mining or begging.
The shock that meets me in Zhang Jing’s eyes suggests she disagrees, but I make a small gesture, urging her not to protest as the others deliberate.
The elders exchange glances, and it is Elder Chen who finally speaks. It’s true that we lost one of the cleaners yesterday. Zhang Jing needs a place, and a place has opened up. It is a fortunate thing. Balance, yes?
Elder Lian looks skeptical for a moment and then shrugs. I will allow it. Behind her hard exterior, I catch a glimpse of regret in her eyes. Maybe her initial decision to kick Zhang Jing out wasn’t born of cruelty so much as necessity. Elder Lian pities what’s happened to my sister, and somehow that makes all this even worse.
The full impact of what I’ve just brought about hits me. My sister, a servant? Not just any servant—a cleaner? We’ve spent so much time as artist apprentices that I’ve come to take this lifestyle for granted. It’s demanding, but there is a prestige to it. There’s a pride in knowing our craft is what keeps the village orderly, that hundreds of years from now, our descendants will look upon what we’ve created and learn from it. Our art will endure when the rest of us are gone. Others rightly treat us with deference, just as the servants in the kitchen did earlier. I suddenly imagine Zhang Jing groveling as they did, bowing and avoiding eye contact with the other artists. Worse, I imagine her scrubbing the floor or doing some other demeaning task.
I see despair in Zhang Jing’s face, but she is nonetheless quick to give the proper response. She bows three times to Elder Chen. Thank you, master. It is a great honor. I will fulfill my new duties with as much dignity as I fulfilled my previous ones.
My heart sinks. Honor? There is no honor in this, but at least I will be able to sleep easy knowing my sister has a roof over her and food to eat. Elder Chen dismisses us with a small gesture, and after more bowing, we retreat to the hallway and head back to the girls’ dormitory.
Don’t worry , I tell Zhang Jing. Once your vision comes back, they will reinstate you in your apprenticeship.
She comes to a halt and shakes her head sadly. Fei, we both know that’s not going to happen. I must accept this miserable fate now.
Miserable? But you were grateful back there.
Of course , she says. I had to be for the sake of your honor after you pleaded for me. But I would have rather walked away with my dignity and gone to the mines than slink around in the shadows of my former position. As though making her point, a servant comes by pushing a broom, sweeping up dirt tracked in from the apprentices. The noise made by the broom’s bristles is interesting, but my grief and outrage are too great to give it much thought. I can understand Zhang Jing’s disappointment, but how could she prefer to be out on the streets? This is a good place for you , I insist. You’ll be safe here. Fed. Protected.
I suppose that’s something , says Zhang Jing. At least this way I won’t have to lie anymore, and I’ll be able to do tasks around here for a long time, even if my vision gets worse. Then I really will have to find another place.
Don’t say that , I protest, unable to handle the thought. Everything will be okay as long as we’re together.
I hope so , she tells me, just before pulling me into a hug.
When we get back to our room, we find another servant waiting for us. I’m here to show you to your new quarters , she explains to Zhang Jing. You will sleep with the servants now.
Zhang Jing’s earlier calm turns to embarrassment, and her face reddens. The other girls stop and gawk at this news, and it’s all I can do not to shake my fists or kick something in my rage. I hadn’t expected this when I made my plea. Zhang Jing’s demotion was bad enough, and now she’s also being taken from me. Who will look after her without me by her side? Ever since our parents died, we’ve been inseparable. How can I go on without her, especially in this new and terrifying time? How am I supposed to contend with this plague of sounds that’s bombarding me if I don’t have her to rely on?